Higher octane fuel – a better alternative to the alternative fuels themselves?

When most of the automotive world is looking at energies like hydrogen, electric power as the green alternatives to the current generation of fuels, few automakers and oil companies are quietly developing a new generation of existing fuels and newer engines to run these fuels so as to extract maximum performance and fuel economy. But why so quietly you ask? The cost factor of course.

Alternative fuel

The reason given by these companies is the mass acceptance of these fuels of higher octane which might be slightly hampered higher cost of those fuels even though one may be able to extract much beter performance and fuel economy out of them. Their argument is even with the higher cost, these higher octane fuels should result in a lower cost of ownership due to the extremely good fuel economy. So how much higher it might cost? “Ten cents a gallon more is probably palatable. A quarter risks customer acceptance,” said an industry executive who requested anonymity because his company’s plans are secret. More than the development of the fuel itself, it is the way to sell these products to the public, that raises an element of doubt in the stakeholder’s mind.

So what is new here?

Actually, there isn’t much, which is actually the best thing about this; it is just the regular fuel with a higher percentage of octane which does the trick. When automakers and oil companies talk about higher petrol grades, it is actually the fuel with the higher octane content. Higher octane in the fuel allows the engine to run at a higher compression ratio and extract more power out of the same quantity of fuel. For example, the new Dodge Challenger SRT Demon produces 840 horsepower using super-premium 100 octane fuel, but “just” 808 horsepower with 91 octane. Hence, a properly engineered vehicle will go faster and further for the same quantity of fuel. Also, this results in better fuel efficiency too.

When Ford’s Global Technology and engineering chief Raj Nair talked about Ford’s interest in developing new fuel formulations” at the Society of Automotive Engineers annual banquet in Detroit, USA, it was met with a warm applause.
“Increasing octane could be the lowest-cost way to raise fuel economy,” an executive who requested anonymity said. “It costs far less than developing a new transmission, for instance.”

“Most automakers are looking at higher compression to increase efficiency. Raising octane allows that with minimal other changes to the engine,” said Mark Christie, vice president for engine engineering at the U.S. arm of engineering consultant Ricardo. It’s simpler and less expensive than adding new technologies, and a building block to make those technologies even more effective.”


While the lobbyists for better grades of fuel vouch that their will cut down the greenhouse gas emissions and better alternative to the alternative fuels themselves, the biggest challenge is the price factor of the fuel which no one dares to mention. Also, even though the current petrol engines would run fine with the higher grades of fuel, they would not be able to take advantage of it unless they are adapted which would again increase the developmental costs.

Most widely available grade of fuel widely available in US is around 94 octane while in Europe it is super premium 98 octane. In India, the widely available grade of petrol is the 91 octane. 97 octane fuel is available only in select metros that too wide and far. For a widespread adoption of these better grade of fuels by the mass market, the automakers and the fuel companies advocating them have their task cut out. An interesting scenario to look at, may be, a decade down the line.